Oprah Winfrey wades into ‘American Dirt’ controversy with her book club pick
After doing damage control for her involvement — and un-involvement — in Sundance’s Russell Simmons documentary, Oprah Winfrey has waded into another controversy.
The TV mogul appeared on Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning” to unveil her latest book club pick, “American Dirt,” alongside author Jeanine Cummins, who has received swift and harsh backlash for her polarizing portrayal of Mexican migrants and their struggles.
Co-host Gayle King wasted no time addressing the brewing backlash, referring to “the haterade” that the author has ignited with her latest work.
“And you said even you were first worried that you had no business writing this book,” King said. “You felt compelled, yet unqualified. Why?”
Jeanine Cummins’ novel about a migrant family, “American Dirt,” hasn’t been published yet but has already stirred a debate: Who should tell what stories?
Cummins — who was born in Spain, is of mixed ethnicity and identifies as Latina and white — then launched into her defense, noting that she studied the subject extensively and consulted with a Chicano studies expert at San Diego State before writing, in addition to interacting with migrants and volunteering at the border.
“I always knew that I wanted to write about immigration,” the novelist said. “I was interested in that topic, and I resisted, for a very long time, telling the story from a migrant’s point of view because I was worried that I didn’t know enough — that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”
After Cummins, who described her call from Winfrey as the “best moment of my life,” said her piece, Winfrey backed her with enthusiastic support, explaining why she “was in from the very first sentence” of the book.
“What touched me is, by the end of the story — not even by the end — I immediately was drawn into the story and their desire to get into the United States,” the OWN founder said. “Every night on the news ... you see the stories at the border. I thought this humanized that migration process in a way that nothing else I’d ever felt or seen had.”
“American Dirt” follows Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca, as they mount a dangerous escape from their home in Acapulco, Mexico, after a drug cartel kills several of their family members during a quinceañera. The novel, which hit shelves Tuesday, has already garnered praise from some who consider it a gritty and poignant tale about one family’s harrowing journey to America.
Pam Houston reviews Jeanine Cummins’ ‘American Dirt.’ The novel digs into the Mexican border crisis and a mother’s dangerous journey to a better life.
Others have slammed it as a harmful act of cultural appropriation that perpetuates stereotypes and clichés about the people it depicts while fetishizing their hardships. Los Angeles Times contributor Rigoberto González lauded Cummins for telling a “highly original story,” but accused her of “pandering to social justice language toward the end of the book.”
Rigoberto Gonzalez reviews Jeanine Cummins’ ‘American Dirt.’ The novel tells the story of a mother and son on Mexico’s migrant trail in search of a new life.
On Twitter, Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez, who immigrated to the U.S. with her family from El Salvador, criticized “American Dirt” and the American book industry as a whole extensively for denying real immigrants the chance to “tell our own stories” while making “money off of our suffering with a cheap, stereotypical thrill.” Cummins has since blocked Bermudez on the platform.
What I do see: A book industry that’s so out of touch — that so rarely supports immigrants to tell our own stories — eager to make money off of our suffering with a cheap, stereotypical thrill. #ImNotAmericanDirt. Neither is any immigrant I’ve known in 17 years of journalism.— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATBermudez) January 20, 2020
The heated discussion surrounding “American Dirt” has certainly kicked up, if nothing else, a timely conversation about the politics of fiction and who has the right to tell certain stories.
Winfrey has already received several messages on social media from disappointed fans urging her to rethink her selection and offering alternative, firsthand literature instead.
"This story really changed me and changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country,” Winfrey said on CBS.
“I love hearing that,” Cummins replied.
“American Dirt” will also be featured on an upcoming episode of the Apple TV+ series “Oprah’s Book Club,” where Cummins and Winfrey will travel to the border to discuss her polarizing work.
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